Hitch up your database to your Web site

Agencies are hard at work building
bridges between their vast database collections and their World Wide Web sites. Some even
plan to maintain and update the databases across the Internet.


I've had the same goal for more than a year. The ideal program to achieve this goal
would be easy to use, scalable to enterprise level and capable of handling free-form
documents as well as relational databases.


I'm still searching. Some of the packages I tried are powerful enough but demand
advanced script-writing or programming. Others are simple but too limited in scope,
platform or functions. And much of the software in this market simply doesn't work as
advertised.


Cold Fusion Professional from Allaire Corp. is the first widely adopted Web-to-database
solution. It relies on Open Database Connectivity, Structured Query Language and the Cold
Fusion Markup Language to produce dynamic Web pages.


ODBC is one of several standards used to connect to databases. SQL lets the user
construct queries that retrieve, add or delete records. And CFML is a tag-based script
language that integrates with Hypertext Markup Language documents.


The CFML tags encapsulate complex server processes such as database interactions or
e-mail sends.


Although the CFML application programming environment is text-based, Cold Fusion
supports more than 150 advanced development functions, including looping. You only have to
master a few of these functions to develop and maintain sophisticated Web applications
rapidly.


Steve Haas, a computer specialist with the Office of Systems Design and Development at
the Social Security Administration, told me his group is pleased with Cold Fusion. Haas
and associate Pam Waters used it to implement the General Services Administration's year
2000 commercial product database.


"It provides tremendous power with very little code," Haas said. Anyone with
a command of SQL and HTML can become productive quickly and with little coding, he said.


Cold Fusion uses application programming interfaces instead of the Common Gateway
Interface to connect to databases.


APIs almost always perform better than CGI, because they don't have to open and close a
separate process for each transaction.


Other government organizations that use Cold Fusion include GSA, the Navy, the
Smithsonian Institution, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agriculture Department.


WebBase for Windows from ExperTelligence Inc. also relies on special tags and SQL but
is tightly integrated with a Web server specially tuned for databases. The WebBase suite
has tools for site management and forms connectivity.


Also included is a license for WebberActive, which supports the World Wide Web
Consortium's recently adopted standard for Dynamic HTML and Document Object Model.


Dynamic HTML lets authors make interactive Web pages that use up far less bandwidth
than conventional HTML pages. DHTML can dynamically modify HTML tags, style sheets, text,
tables, ActiveX objects and Java applets without server intervention.


The ExperForms add-on to WebBase really impressed me. It can convert any scanned form
into a complete Web site. It automatically creates the database and the forms to add,
update, search and view records in any browser. Users need no special viewers or plug-ins
to use the add-on.


However, WebBase is demanding. The 500-plus expressions in its markup language will
daunt nonprogrammers.


The company is abandoning printed documentation in favor of Adobe Systems' Portable
Document Format files. I hope ExperTelligence changes its mind.


Although the learning curve is steeper than Cold Fusion's, determined developers will
benefit from stable, robust WebBase applications.


Randy Dirks, a programmer-analyst at the Air Force Cataloguing and Standardization
Center in Battle Creek, Mich., said he delivers terabytes of information to users with
WebBase.


Dirks uses it as the front end to Microsoft Access databases. He said it cost thousands
of dollars less than a Microsoft front end.


"WebBase is the best thing going since pop-top beer cans," Dirks said.
"I'd only rate it a six on ease of use but would give it a nine or 10 for
versatility."


Dirks spent about three weeks putting his first database online. He said users can
search a 400M database and expect returns in less than 20 seconds. Some of his
applications handle more than 20,000 transactions per hour.


Other agencies using WebBase include NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,
Md., and a Navy site at Port Hueneme, Calif.


Visual InterDev from Microsoft Corp. is a collection of Web authoring, site management
and database tools that connect Web applications to ODBC-compliant databases. It
integrates the SQL Query Designer, HTML Data Form Wizard, Active Data Objects and reusable
programmable components.


The package is extensible to Microsoft's Active Platforms, based on the company's
Component Object Model.


COMs, rather like Windows Object Linking and Embedding objects on steroids, underlie
Microsoft's ActiveX controls and Active Server Pages. A database COM object included with
Microsoft Internet Information Server let developers make Active Server Pages, which endow
dynamic Web applications with advanced state management, server-side scripting and
additional server components.


Microsoft has ODBC drivers for Access, SQL Server, FoxPro and Oracle Corp. databases.
Also, Microsoft promotes its Active Data Objects as the best way to optimize database
access, although some developers call ADO's thread handling slow and unreliable.


AskSam Web Publisher from askSam Systems is a free-form database with a loyal
following. It converts a collection of documents into a searchable database in minutes.
The program's indexing makes search returns fast.


AskSam is in widespread use at federal, state and local sites. Investigators and law
enforcement personnel enthuse about the way it can pinpoint common factors and
relationships in masses of unorganized data. Some told me that innocent prisoners have
been freed and perpetrators arrested after askSam sorted through evidence.


Grant Sperry, a forensic document analyst with the Postal Inspection Service in
Memphis, Tenn., told me the USPS forensic lab and other federal and state labs use askSam
3.0 Professional to manage databases on the authenticity, origin, alterations or age of
documents.


Grant said he appreciated the power of free-form data entry and retrieval and the ease
of creating unrestricted fields on the fly. He said askSam's search and report writing
capabilities also had proved valuable.


AskSam Systems will Web-publish askSam databases for customers starting from $30 per
month. But askSam's Web Publisher product is inadequate and overpriced. When I tried to
import HTML files, the package interpreted the tags incorrectly. Publishing simple text
files with little formatting gave better but still somewhat unpredictable results.


A 32-bit version of askSam has not yet been released, and the interface has an
old-fashioned look. Nevertheless, askSam customers are fiercely loyal. Every user I polled
said it organizes information faster, better and easier than anything else on the market.
Many called askSam support "fantastic."


Company president Phil Schnyder acknowledged Web Publisher's limitations. He said the
company is trying to correct them by integrating Microsoft Active Server technology in an
upcoming 32-bit release. Government organizations that use askSam include the FBI, CIA and
dozens of law enforcement agencies. But, few use Web Publisher.


EZSurvey from Raosoft Inc. creates statistically valid surveys from a database where
samples are collected and analyzed. Results can be displayed as pie charts and bar graphs.
It works with another Raosoft product, SurveyWin, for more sophisticated analysis.


I found EZSurvey very easy to use, and it worked as promised. It was, however, a little
overpriced at $399.


Even experienced developers find Visual InterDev highly complex. EZSurvey is easy but
too limited. AskSam's Web Publisher could suffice if the documents involved don't have
complex formatting.


WebBase is my Reviewer's Choice among these Web database publishing packages. Cold
Fusion will serve many users almost as well, but WebBase is more robust and has more
generous customer support.


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